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Poacher to friend of birds - Trapper mentored by salim ali recalls his fascinating life

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SUMI SUKANYA Published 19.01.11, 12:00 AM

Patna, Jan. 18: Looks are often deceptive. Sometimes the greatest of talents are bundled in the simplest of souls. One look at Ali Hussain and one might overlook him as yet another villager with rustic ways.

More so, when he speaks in a pure Begusarai accent. But if one hears him speak on his favourite topic — birds — one cannot ignore him for the command he has over the subject. No one could, not even the great ornithologist Salim Ali , who was greatly impressed with the Bihar lad’s art and practical knowledge of birds, chose to become Hussain’s mentor.

Hussain, 62, belongs to the Mishikar tribe and hails from Manjhaul village in Begusarai. His family had traditionally been involved in trapping birds for commercial purposes but soon it was declared illegal.

Hussain, popularly known as Chiryawala, still survived in the business to feed his family. He would trap birds around Kanwar Jheel — which draws migratory birds from around the globe every year — near his village and sell them to wildlife traders and zoos like most of his tribesmen did. He was, however, much more skilled than any of them.

Then sometime in the 1960s, he was spotted by Salim Ali when he came to Manjhaul looking for a trapper to help him capture birds for his ornithological studies. Young Hussain stepped forward, marking his conversion from poacher to a conservationist.

His talent was recognised by Ali and he groomed Hussain. “Earlier I used to negotiate over bird pairs. But after I came in touch with Salim saab, my life changed completely. I realised the scientific significance of my work and dedicated my life to the services of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS),” said Hussain, who can identify birds by even their droppings and a small part of feather.

Today Hussain can identify about 500 species of birds and over the last four decades, has travelled to nearly all of India’s national parks under the society or other projects to help ornithologists with their jobs. Pushpraj, a freelance writer who has known Hussain for several decades, said: “Hussain’s a trapper of the old school. Even though he has access to new methods, it’s incredible that he had the vision to stick to his traditional art.”

The art, says Hussain, offers more than 100 techniques to snare birds. He adds, “Different situations need different traps. So do different types of birds.” One of the most efficient and alluring, of course, is the gong-and-fire method, which Hussain uses on moonless nights (birds get alarmed by shadows).

Carrying bundles of dry grass which he burns, Hussain is accompanied by a person sounding a gong during those nights. Once near the water birds — gurbles, brahminy ducks, grey lag geese, ducks — Hussain throws his net mounted on a bamboo frame. Each throw nets him half-a-dozen birds.

“The birds don’t get alarmed. They think the fire is another star. The light and sound confuses the birds. They get disoriented. The gong also muffles the sound of their footsteps. By this method you could net nearly 200 birds in a couple of hours,” he says.

Ask Hussain how many birds he has trapped so far and he laughs a hearty laugh. “I never counted. But there would be lakhs and lakhs,” Hussain said.

And so many visits to several states and abroad means he will have many interesting tales to share. “I trapped 17 sandal cranes at Washington once in 15 minutes and they were mesmerised. They jokingly asked, through a translator, if I could trap humans too and I used my gum and stick method to trap three scientists in a large net. They kept rolling with laughter for several minutes,” he said, and proudly added that in the US, ornithologists told him he was not only a bird-trapper, he was a bird expert too.

But more than that, what Hussain treasures most is the pat on the back from Salim Ali. Together in Ratlam district, he spotted an ashy-crowned finch lark from far without the aid of binoculars. “Salim saab told me you will go far,” Hussain lights up as he recalls the incident.

But decades of laurels and words of appreciation later, nothing much has changed in his life. Hussain’s more than four decades of work with the BNHS hasn’t even earned him permanent employment with them. At a meagre salary of Rs 5,500 a month, his work is too seasonal, confined to autumn and winter.

Moreover, he is pained at the deteriorating condition of Kanwar lake where he has practised and skilled his art. “Earlier thousands of migratory birds used to come there every year. Now the lake is almost dry and there are hardly any birds. The forest department should do something to restore the lake,” said Hussain.

But money is not something Hussain is worried about. “Is it not great that I get a chance to rub shoulders with the greatest ornithologists and even they appreciate my work? I feel so privileged that even without being able to read or write, I have a certain degree of mastery over the dying art,” he says.

Speaking of the “dying art”, he is quick to add that he has passed on his art to all his four sons. “They cannot put install rings or transmitters to the birds now but they can surely trap them,” he says as he gears up for his next assignment in Bangladesh.

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